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Pop prodigy Shawn Wasabi on making people happy

Pop prodigy Shawn Wasabi on making people happy

At only twenty-four, music prodigy Shawn Wasabi has already had a huge impact on music. Not only have his music videos racked up more than 100M views, but he is also the inventor of the Midi Fighter 64, a custom new fingerboard sampling instrument. He is able to sample over 140 songs and squeeze it into less than a three-minute song. After a number of hit singles like ‘Marble Soda’ and appearing in commercials with McDonalds and Toyota, Shawn has released his first full album, Mangotale, with Warner Records. We caught up with the musician to talk with him about his musical creative process and inventing a new instrument. Stream the full album below.

Mark Benjamin: You recently released your first full album Mangotale into the world. How did that feel?

Shawn Wasabi: I’ve been waiting to put out an album the entire time I’ve been making music. I’m glad I was able to put this project together and release it. At the time, there was a lot of introspection, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. I had so much fun making it. I’m so proud.

MB: Where did the name Mangotale come from?

SW: One of my favorite bakeries is called 85 Degrees Cafe. They have this pastry called the mango tail and that’s what inspired me to name it. I remember thinking that’s a story I would want to tell or a story I would want to hear. It’s also inspired by one of my favorite video games, Undertale. 

MB: There’s a moment in the music video “The Snack that Smiles Back” where you’re playing on the midi 64 and then you play your music on an xbox controller. You’re so fast with your fingers. So, I wonder, are you a big gamer?

SW: I love gaming. I feel like I’m super casual. I’m not as coordinated as all these other gamers on the internet, but I do enjoy playing video games. It’s my favorite pastime beside making music. If I’m not making music I’m probably on my PS4 or my Nintendo Switch. 

Mangotale” album artwork

MB: You literally invented an instrument. The Midi Fighter 64. Why did you feel like you needed to create a new instrument versus using whatever instruments are currently out there?

SW: It brings me to Pixar. When they make their movies, they use software and programs they invented on their own. They invented their own render engine and all these various things. It started as a tech company before they even made movies. I thought about it the same way for my creation process. I love the idea of creating your own instrument. I love the idea of making your own tools and knowing everything about the tool you created to make music.  

MB: You started to mass produce this new instrument. Have you been surprised or impressed by seeing what other people do with it?

SW: I feel I’m easily impressed and I love seeing people approach creativity, even the smallest thing is super interesting to me. When people try to draw stick figures or make a simple beat, it’s so fun to me. 

I highly encourage anyone who likes to make music to experiment and if that means sampling or appropriating form influences or listening to other artists and extrapolating ideas and styles to make it your own, then go for it. I appreciate all the different angles people take making things.

MB: I understand you used to sample all sorts of sounds from everyday life, like something as simple as a door closing. You described it as building a sandcastle one grain of sand at a time. You’ve recently broke away from that process and now you’re making your own samples from scratch. Is that the next step in your musical process?

“Nothing will ever be as perfect as the world that we have inside our heads.”

Shawn Wasabi

SW: I’m glad you mentioned that. When I was making ‘Marble Soda,’ that was entirely sampled. Most of those sounds are taken from other sounds and other things I’ve heard. Nowadays, like on my new album, I made all my own sounds. I like having my own sound design. It’s a lot of my own pressing buttons and twiddling knobs. I think it’s a natural process to build your own art. You first start by wanting to emulate your inspirations or wanting to emulate the artists that you admire.

You wish you could be Prince or Jimmy Hendrix or any artists that you grew up with in your childhood. When people start out making their first music you’re probably thinking about it actively. You likely can’t channel your references subconsciously at first when you’re making your own art or music. That comes later.

You also get a lot better. When I was starting out, something might feel like an obstacle like trying to learn something like making a snare. In the beginning, it took me a whole day to learn it and now it takes me a second. There are so many different things that go into the process but after a few months or a year or even five years it feels more natural.

Eventually, you feel comfortable freestyling your art. Like when you go into the studio for the hundredth time or the thousandth time, you’re comfortable to experiment more. Like the band The 1975, I remember an interview with Matt when he explained that their latest album was so different from their past music because they didn’t want to do the same thing over again.

MB: Your music, in general, I find to be mostly about joy and happiness. Your soundscape is almost trance-like at times. Is music an escape for you?

“Snack” artwork.

SW: Totally. I go back and forth with the idea that music is supposed to be an escape from reality versus music is supposed to document and tell stories of different cultures and communities. It’s a combination of both. I think creatives have a vision of the world in our head where everything is perfect. 

Unfortunately, there’s never going to be a point in my career, in my process of making art and music, where I’ll be able to capture the perfectness of that world. We have this world deep down inside us, in our heads, where everything is perfect. Nothing will ever be as perfect as the world that we have inside our heads.

MB: You’re very active on Twitter especially lately with the political movements in the United States. How have recent events affected you?

SW: Social media is important but ultimately what’s more important is actually talking to people in person. Going out of your way to talk to your friends or other people in your community or calling your Congressperson. When I say something on Twitter there are a million different ways for people to interpret it without my body language or without my tone. I’m active politically online, sure, but the most important thing I’ve done is actually talking to my friends and having conversations with family. Sometimes those conversations are tough but necessary and impactful.

Shawn Wasabi. Photo: Oliver Shou

MB: With your songs, how do you go about picking someone to feature for a song? Is there anyone you dream of having featured on a song of yours?

SW: I try to do what’s best for the song. I’m always making songs and making art with my friends. Being collaborative is therapeutic and a great way to make friends. I look for the right storyteller for  a song. There are some people that are really good at storytelling. When you listen to what they’re saying and you’re just so immersed in it. When I make music that has features, I want the music to feel that way. 

Musicians that I’d want to have featured on a song is a long list. There are so many people I look up to that send me inspirations. I would love to get Dua Lipa on something. Going down my list on Spotify, I’m realizing that I’ve worked with so many people I admire already. I was doing a song with Doja Cat a long time ago – she’s super talented and cool. She’s one of the most talented people I’ve been in the room with and had the pleasure of working with. 

I’d really like to do a song with Conan Gray. I met him right before lockdown and loved his voice. Another great story teller. He could say anything and it comes out like the coolest thing ever. Anamanaguchi is another. They are one of my favorite bands. I’d also love to do a song with Linkin Park. Pretty much all the weird kids growing up in middle and grade school were Lincoln Park fans at one point. I was talking to Linkin Park band member Joe Hahn not too long ago and I had this great conversation with him hearing him talk about his experience as another Asian person in the American music industry and being able to relate to that. That would be so cool.

Mangotale is out now. Stream below.

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